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UK high court allows Uyghur forced labor case to proceed

A worker unloads bales of cotton picked in northwestern China's Xinjiang region at a railway station in Jiujiang, central China's Jiangxi province, March 26, 2021.

The World Uyghur Congress contends that Britain is illegally importing cotton goods from China.

By Roseanne Gerin 2021.12.15

The High Court of England and Wales said on Wednesday that a Uyghur rights advocacy group could proceed with a case against U.K. authorities for permitting the importation of cotton goods produced with Uyghur forced labor in China.

The World Uyghur Congress (WUC) of Munich, Germany, and the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), a U.K.-based nonprofit group that pursues legal actions against states and actors involved in human rights violations, allege that cotton goods produced by Uyghurs in detention camps in Xinjiang are entering the U.K.

Witness statements, leaked government documents, satellite imagery, a secret memorandum from within the textile industry, and documents that the Chinese government has attempted to remove from the internet will prove the case, GLAN said in a statement issued Wednesday.

“All evidence points to cotton made using forced labor coming into the U.K. from the Uyghur region, East Turkestan,” Siobhan Allen, a GLAN legal officer, said in a statement issued Wednesday. “By failing to enforce the laws that exist to address this, the U.K. government is allowing companies to benefit from such crimes.”

GLAN said a court win would set a “world-first precedent” by confirming that the U.K’s Proceeds of Crime Act — originally targeting money laundering and other illegal activities of organized crime — also applies to proceeds companies accumulate from so-called atrocity crimes, GLAN’s statement said.

The rights groups also argue that a 19th century law prohibiting the importation of prison-made goods is being violated by the purchase of cotton good produced by forced labor.

“Living in a free country which upholds respect for human rights, it hurts so much to know that the products that are used in this country are the fruit of the enslavement of my people,” Rahima Mahmut, WUC’s U.K. director, said in the statement. “I have full confidence that the British government will make the right decision in line with its legal framework which champions the highest standards of human dignity.”

Chinese authorities have used Uyghur forced labor in the cotton industry as part of its systematic persecution of the roughly 12 million Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities who live in Xinjiang.

Since 2017, China has held as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a network of detention camps that Beijing claims are vocational training centers.

The camps are the center of a campaign of repression that has drawn charges from the West of genocide and crimes against humanity. China rejects the accusations.

China is the U.K.’s third-largest trade partner, with total trade in goods and services between the two countries amounting to £93 billion (U.S. $123 billion) in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2021, according to government figures.

The new case comes six days after an independent Uyghur Tribunal in London ruled that China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Its finding was based on evidence from survivors, witnesses and experts on the region. The tribunal has no state backing, however.

A report from the U.K. Parliament in July catalogued human rights abuses against Uyghurs and called for international action to halt the atrocities in Xinjiang. It said the U.K. government should consider a ban on cotton products produced in the region.

Earlier this year the U.K. Parliament voted unanimously to declare that genocide and crimes against humanity were taking place against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

In the U.S., the Congress a week ago passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which will block the importation of goods produced by forced labor in Xinjiang. The White House has said that President Joe Biden will sign the legislation into law.


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